IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

A rise and fall that's out of this world

Sending balloons into the stratosphere for final-frontier views is a feat that's now within reach of thousands of do-it-yourselfers, but the flight conducted on Monday by a team of high-school students and mentors participating in the University of New Hampshire's Project SMART was something completely different.

After the balloon's launch from Brattleboro, Vt., the cameras mounted on the scientific platform recorded pastoral panoramas of the New England countryside. Meanwhile, a miniature Geiger counter monitored radiation levels, and other instruments kept track of temperature and pressure. The scientific aim of the summer-session experiment was to see how the flux of cosmic rays varies with altitude.

By the time the balloon reached the 105,900-foot level, almost two hours after launch, the cameras were catching amazing views of the curving Earth beneath the blackness of outer space. That height is less than a third of the way to the internationally recognized boundary of space, at 100 kilometers or 62 miles, but the sight is nevertheless impressive.

Then the balloon popped. And that's when things got really interesting.

First of all, it's unusual to get such a clear video frame of the balloon actually popping. But more importantly, this mission tested a novel method for the recovery of payloads from that high up. Usually, recovery relies on a parachute landing. This time, the payload's descent was slowed by a 3-foot-wide (meter-wide), aerodynamically shaped disk made out of pink plastic foam and cardboard. No parachute was attached.

Over the course of 30 minutes, the four-pound re-entry package drifted downward to a spot 40 miles southeast of the launch point, in rural Massachusetts. When the students located the payload, it was intact.

"The re-entry vehicle was just sitting there as if someone had gently placed it on the ground,” Andrew Mahn, a senior at Sant Bani School in Sanbornton, N.H., said in a UNH news release.

The successful landing proved the validity of the vehicle's plastic-and-cardboard disk design, said Louis Broad, a physics teacher at Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow, N.H. "This represents a paradigm shift for the whole small ballooning community. I've never seen anybody else use anything but parachutes,” Broad said.

Broad and another physics teacher, Scott Goelzer of Coe-Brown Northwood Academy, were the students' guides during the four-week space science module for the Project SMART summer program at UNH. The balloon's rise and fall provided a fitting climax for the summer — and gave the students valuable experience for the future.

"It’s a simulated satellite project, from design through construction, launch, flight and recovery," Goelzer said. Building and launching the experiment cost reportedly less than $1,000. That super-low price tag suggests that the Project SMART made a super-smart investment.

Where in the Cosmos

The picture of the popping balloon served as this week's "Where in the Cosmos" puzzle on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. Three of the Facebook followers — Gabrielle Wolf-Stahl, James Sloan and Kit Watson — took no time at all to identify the picture correctly. To reward their quick wits and fast fingers, I'm sending them pairs of 3-D glasses in the mail. Want to get in on the fun? Click the "like" button for the Facebook page and stay tuned for the next"Where in the Cosmos" challenge on Aug. 11.

More high-altitude high jinks:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.